TROY, N.Y. — A couple of engineering schools from opposite ends of upstate New York met at the Houston Field House tonight, and those fans of the home team who were in attendance left far happier than they would have been had they made the choice to stay home and instead take in another important New York sporting event.
“Yankees? Who are the Yankees? I didn’t know they were playing,” joked Rensselaer coach Seth Appert. “No, it was a great crowd. We’re very fortunate at RPI; our young men get to play in front of big crowds almost every night if our students are in session. We have passionate supporters and it’s loud and energetic and it was a really good atmosphere tonight.”
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute defeated the Rochester Institute of Technology 4-1 and joined Union, who defeated Niagara, in making it a sweep for two ECAC clubs from the capital district over two Atlantic Hockey sides from western New York on Friday. The travel partners will attempt to cement their claim to bragging rights Saturday when they rotate opponents.
All jokes aside, the attendance of 3,513, while still well short of a sellout, was far greater than what has been seen at the corner of Peoples and Burdett against any opponent not named Clarkson or Cornell for quite some time. The in-state/tech school rivalry may have helped, but certainly no more than the aforementioned competition of the American League Championship Series must have hurt.
For reference purposes, RPI drew only 2,520 for their mid-season game against rival Union last year. The only home game last season where the Engineers topped tonight’s attendance, other than the Big Red Freakout, was when they drew 4,134 on February 6 hosting Clarkson.
To keep the New York baseball theme running, it would be fair to say that if Cornell and Clarkson are like the Yankees, then RPI is like the Mets. The former pack their house game in and game out, regardless of their present standing (even though it is usually pretty good). For the latter, as the team goes, so go the fans.
When the team is good, a ticket is hard to come by. But when they struggle, as RPI has for several seasons dating back to the end of the Dan Fridgen era, the fan base becomes increasingly apathetic and complacent. Clearly, with the Engineers now unbeaten in four straight after a one-goal loss at then No. 20 Colorado College in their opener, and having allowed two or fewer goals in all five of their contests, there is a buzz among fans that this could really be a breakout year.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” commented Appert on the streaks. “Yeah, that is a good [omen for the season]. Until you bring it up and then you probably change the omen. You know early in the season you’re struggling a little bit with consistency for 60 minutes, but I like that we’ve been hard to play against and how we’ve been physical. I thought for 40 minutes tonight we were an extremely physical hockey team. There were some high-end collisions out on the ice delivered by us.”
One of those collisions was started by Chase Polacek only three and a half minutes into the game when he threw a monster hip-check on Jeff Smith right in front of his own bench, charging his teammates and the student section up in the process.
Polacek later continued his pursuit of a second consecutive nomination as a Hobey Baker finalist when he assisted on Rensselaer’s third goal at 15:46 of the second. With his back to the entire offensive zone at the right point, he somehow caught a glimpse out the corner of his eye of Tyler Helfrich hanging next to the far post and sent a change-up saucer pass from his backhand. The puck landed right on the blade of Helfrich, who banged it through the open back door.
“Yeah, it was a total grenade,” laughed Polacek. “I mean it wasn’t the pass I was expecting and I’m lucky it got through to be honest. I knew there were two guys on me and another collapsing on me, so I cut back and took a look to the net and saw Tyler and threw it there.”
The main offensive story of the night was RPI freshman Brock Higgs breaking through and scoring his first two collegiate goals, each breaking a tie to put RPI ahead. He first gave them a 1-0 advantage on the power play just over 13 minutes into the opening period and then regained a 2-1 lead, which the Engineers never relinquished, during four-on-four action at 4:05 of the second.
Both were scored off broken plays down low, the first in a scrum right in front of the Tigers’ crease and the next on a wrap-around try after Higgs had initially tried to pass out front from behind the net, only to have the puck deflected right back onto his tape.
“Yeah, I’m not the kind of finesse guy that you’re going to see out there flying down the wing and making someone look silly,” said Higgs. “I’m the kind of guy that’s going to get in the corner and go to the front of the net and get those greasy goals. That’s what I’ve done my whole junior career and now I plan to do it here as well.”
Frozen Four hero Cameron Burt had evened the score at 1-1, in between Higgs’ tallies, with under a minute remaining in the first from the bottom of the left circle. Bryan Brutlag rounded out the scoring early in the third when the rebound of a shot by Alex Angers-Goulet deflected off of his skate and into the RIT net.
RIT coach Wayne Wilson was unhappy enough with his team’s performance to have them doing calisthenics drills in the public corridor outside their locker room as soon as they had shed their gear.
“I thought they outskated us,” he said of RPI. “They were more physical, and just were a hungrier hockey team than we were tonight.”
For those who are thinking and saying that RIT is not playing with the swagger and confidence of a program coming off its first Frozen Four appearance, remember that the Tigers started their 2009-10 campaign with five straight losses before dropping only six more the rest of the regular season.
“For us it’s still an evaluation period,” Wilson agreed. “It’s more about our team than anything else. We still want to win, but not at the (expense) of continuing to experiment to find out about our team. We don’t have exhibition games to do that [like in pro sports] so unless you give guys opportunities, you’ll never know. You hope that you figure some things out here and you learn about your team before you get to league play, but I would be doing the exact same thing even if we had league games at this point. You’ve got to give people opportunities.”
Senior Jan Ropponen became the first of three Tiger goaltenders to get his second start of the young season after logging just over 20 minutes of action over his first three years.
“I thought he played real well in his first game and was real solid tonight,” said Wilson. “I had no problems. Tonight, I thought he was really the only one who came out and played well. But we’ll put our freshman in tomorrow and go from there.”
Meanwhile, Allen York continued his stellar performance in net for the Men of Troy. He now leads the nation in minutes played and is third in save percentage (.950) and fourth in goals against (1.36) among goaltenders with more than two games played.
“I feel confident every game, but I don’t know if I’m getting better or worse,” said York, who gave all the credit to the defense. “I don’t look at stats because I don’t really care. I know when I’m playing good or not playing good, and I’m playing good right now. As soon as you look at stats, you start letting pucks in, and then you think about how your stats are going down.”
“I don’t worry about being hot,” commented Appert on his top netminder. “And I don’t think he is hot. I just think he’s playing how Allen York should play. At the same time, [back-up goalie] Bryce [Merriam] is pushing and he’s been really great in practice and he’s really fighting to earn ice time. I haven’t made any decisions on that over the next couple of [non-conference] games, but at some point with what Bryce means to our program, he deserves an opportunity to get